By Nate Raymond
(Reuters) - A federal judge on Monday ruled the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill did not discriminate against white and Asian American applicants in a closely watched case challenging the consideration of race in undergraduate student admissions.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Loretta Biggs in Winston-Salem came in a lawsuit by Students for Fair Admissions, a group founded by conservative anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum that is pursuing a similar case against Harvard University.
SFFA is appealing its loss in the Harvard case to the U.S. Supreme Court, potentially giving its conservative majority a chance to end affirmative action policies used to increase the number of Black and Hispanic students on American campuses.
In the UNC case, SFFA accused the school of violating the U.S. Constitution and the Civil Rights Act by making race the predominant factor in its admissions process to favor Black and Hispanic applicants to the detriment of white and Asian American candidates.
But Biggs said UNC's consideration of race was narrowly tailored, constitutionally permissible and furthered a "compelling and substantial interest in pursuing and attaining the educational benefits of diversity."
In a 161-page ruling, she said that while no student should be admitted solely based on race, ignoring it "misses important context to include obscuring racial barriers and obstacles that have been faced, overcome and are yet to be overcome."
Beth Keith, a UNC spokesperson, said the ruling "makes clear the university's holistic admissions approach is lawful."
Blum in a statement vowed to appeal the ruling to a federal appeals court and potentially to the Supreme Court, saying documents and data presented at trial "revealed UNC's systematic discrimination against non-minority applicants."
His group similarly accused Harvard of discriminating against Asian Americans and engaging in impermissible "racial balancing." But a federal appeals court last year upheld the school's policies.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)